Thursday, October 29, 2009

Introducing Wen Tzu

According to legend, Wen Tzu was a follower of Lao Tzu and he wrote down additional sayings and proverbs in a second book beyond the Tao Te Ching. However, as the translator Thomas Cleary* points out, this is most likely true only in a symbolic sense. For starters, there is no clear indication that Lao Tzu was an actual person, so it's kind of hard to be a disciple of a mythic figure. Secondly, Cleary argues that much evidence points to the fact the Wen Tzu was compiled during the first centuries of the Common Era (CE) and this is hundreds of years after the mythic figure of Lao Tzu walked the earth.

When I was first discovering philosophical Taoism, the chronology of works was presented as Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu, with no mention of the Hua Hu Ching and the Wen Tzu. However, Cleary and several others posit that the Chuang Tzu may have preceded the Tao Te Ching in the sequence and that the Wen Tzu makes use of all these works.

While some people may wish to debate the precise order that these books were written as well as which authors were real people and which were mythic characters, I frankly don't care that much. I agree with Cleary that each of the books more likely represents a school of thought within the Taoist perspective and, most likely, had many authors. What is important to me -- and has been/will be reflected on this blog -- are the themes and concepts of philosophical Taoism.

According to Cleary,
In terms of its contents, the Wen-Tzu presents a distillation of the teachings of its great predecessors the Tao Te Ching, Chuang-tzu, and the Huianan-tzu. It particularly follows the latter in its inclusion of selected material from Confucian, Legalist, and Naturalist schools of thought. In addition, the Wen-tzu also contains a tremendous amount of other proverbial and aphoristic lore that is not to be found in its predecessors.
Like the Chuang Tzu, the Wen Tzu is a long book. In this case, it spans 180 verses over more than 180 pages. Consequently, as I present each verse, some will be quoted in their entirety, some will be quoted partially (which will be so noted) and some will be summarized with quotations cited within the post itself. In addition, because some of the verses are rather long, I may break up the verse to present it in more than one post.

Unlike the Tao Te Ching, the Wen Tzu is not written as poetry. It more closely resembles the translated form of the Chuang Tzu in that it's presented in paragraph form.

Finally, because there are few, if any commentaries, on this work, please don't take what I write here as anything definitive. I'm certain I will have a lot to say on many of the verses, but I'm also certain there will be some in which I don't have a clue. From time to time, I may simply present the verse itself without any comments in the hope that one of you will provide an explanation or greater depth.

With all that said, this should be an interesting journey indeed!

To view an index of all the posts in this series, go here.

*Wen-tzu: Understanding the Mysteries Further Teachings of Lao-Tzu by Thomas Cleary, (1991) Boston: Shambhala Publications.


  1. You know, "WEN" means something like literary or cultured, has to do with literature and writing. (Wenchang is the Chinese God of Literature.) If Lao Tzu means "Old Master", Wen Tzu might be something like literary master, which would explain a lot of the the verbosity and explication of cultural things the TTC doesn't touch on. I can't find any reference in Cleary or anywhere else to support this, but it makes some sense to me. To confirm, I'd like to see the character of "wen" as used in Wen Tzu. But I think I'm on to something.

  2. Or possibly the WEN that has to do with inquire or interrogate, which also makes sense. Any Chinese language scholars out there? What is the character for this character?


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